Alcohol, other drugs, and crime

Alcohol:Other Drugs::Pacific:Mediterranean. Why keep our entire Navy in the Med?

Dylan Matthews and I have a long chat.

All illegal drugs combined are to alcohol as the Mediterranean is to the Pacific. We have our whole navy in the Mediterranean. … Any sentence about drug policy that doesn’t end with “raise alcohol taxes” is an incoherent sentence.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “Alcohol, other drugs, and crime”

  1. Look, I hate to sound like Brett Bellmore here but if you really believe in raising alcohol taxes and/or having a minimum price law you shouldn’t wonder where the stereotype of liberals as out-of-touch wealthy elitists who think taxes can solve everything and have no sense of personal responsibility comes from. What you’re advocating *might* be good policy, but think of how, in this time of economic depression where people are working longer hours for less pay, “your booze costs too little” is going to sound. Absolutely terrible politics. Look at how raising the drinking age to 21 has created a culture of binge drinking on our college campuses. I don’t believe attempts to fix our alcohol problem through government policy will do anything but make things worse.

    1. I don’t know if it makes you feel any better, Matt, but the increase alcohol taxes Kleiman is recommending is 10-20 cents per serving, as I recall. Not enough to make much difference to the vast majority of the drinking public, but having a large impact on problem drinkers.

    2. You are assuming a net increase in taxation. At least in theory, it makes sense to increase taxes on socially destructive forces (alcohol, tobacco, carbon emissions, gasoline, accumulation of massive wealth, high-frequency trading) and use the revenue to lessen the burden on those least able to bear it. To be sure, when it comes time to enact legislation it’s awfully hard to get that sort of balance to work, but in terms of what’s desirable it’s hardly a crazy notion.

      1. “At least in theory, it makes sense to increase taxes on socially destructive forces ”

        Hm, no, I can’t see how a tax on excess government wouldn’t just cancel out.

        Seriously, for “socially destructive” read, “whatever the person enacting the tax happens to not like”. It’s the same problem with all these proposals: The assumption that you’re entitled to make choices for other people, and bludgeon them into obeying you. That’s the REAL “socially destructive force” here, IMO.

        What we need is not more clever ways for government to drive people to do what government wants. What we need is government that’s less persuaded of it’s own entitlement to order people about. That makes the few things that actually NEED something like government work, and otherwise leaves us the freak alone.

        1. Brett, I realize that to you govern is a deliberately malign force that exists only to oppress people. For those of us who recognize that we live with a society of our fellow human beings, it is possible to perceive that, for example, the construction of roads – especially the subsidized construction of roads – creates incentives to use those roads, decreasing density and imposing a maintenance cost on those roads. The decreased density causes real problems for people who don’t own or can’t drive cars – the poor and the elderly, say – and for school districts. These problems can be defrayed by charging for the use of those roads, for example by imposing a tax on the use of gasoline. This can also help to address the global environmental costs of extracting, refining, and transporting gasoline, or at least to discourage them. This is because actions have externalities – and it is only as a society that we can act to address those externalities.

          Similarly, habitual excessive alcohol consumption doesn’t only harm the drinker; on the average, it imposes costs on the criminal justice and healthcare systems, and of course the innocent bystanders should the drinker get behind the wheel. As such, it makes sense to impose taxes that defray these costs and discourage this behavior – such as a modest per-drink tax that the social drinker will scarcely notice, but that will severely impact the habitual heavy drinker.

          And, no, these externalities aren’t all just “ordering people about”, or me being entitled to make choices for other people. They genuinely exist, and they deserve to be taken seriously – just as the national gun culture you so devoutly worship needs to be assessed in light of the bloody toll it imposes on our country, the price in gun violence that we as a society pay in order to enable law-abiding, peace-loving people like yourself to obtain your guns with maximum convenience.

          Look: we are part of a society, one that has among its goals to function smoothly and to achieve the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. Those aren’t its only goals: guaranteeing personal freedoms is also very important, and indeed is part of that happiness, though not only part of it. But even those freedoms include my freedom not to be choked by an unnecessary plethora of gridlocked roads, nor to be mown down by a drunk driver. Mechanisms such as lifestyle taxes that correlate the revenue our society needs with the causes of those needs and with the promotion of our agreed social values aren’t the crushing bootheel of totalitarianism – they are, at worst, what Lawrence Lessig calls “Libertarian Paternalism” – an attempt to combine the ideals and the market mechanisms Libertarianism purports to promote with the broader social realities and goals Libertarians all too often seem to spurn.

          1. No, I don’t think government is a deliberately malign force. Rather, it’s not an automatically benign force. It functions for the benefit of the people running it, like every other institution on the face of the Earth, and for the benefit of people not running it only to the extent it is forced to by incentives outside it’s control. Again, like every other institution on the face of the Earth.

            Essentially, government is an evolved form of protection racket, evolved from pathogen to symbiont. But any symbiont is subject, under the right circumstances, to back sliding into pathogen status; Many of our own symbiotic bacteria will, if we are immune compromised, ‘cheerfully’ eat us alive from the inside.

            Now, the problem is, as I said, it works for the benefit of people not running it “only to the extent it is forced to by incentives outside it’s control.” And the more powerful it gets, the less is outside it’s control. Rather like business in that respect, which is why monopolies in business are a bad idea: Monopoly status frees them from some of the constraints that force businesses to work for the benefit of their customers.

            The 20th century certainly provided us with enough examples of pathogenic government.

            So, that’s my general view of government: Not inherently malign, but only benign to the extent it is forced to be by outside constraints, which become less effective as government gets stronger.

            Now, externalities of drinking justify a tax? But not all drinking HAS externalities. My wife loves her occasional Baily’s, which she never consumes enough of to become even tipsy. Where’s the externality to that? But she’ll still be paying Mark’s tax. And she’s hardly unusual, MOST drinking in this country lacks externalities.

            Typical, so typical, using the problem caused by a minority as an excuse to stomp on the majority… But never the majority you like, of course.

            Government, of course, starts out without the constraint of competition, (Except the ‘voting with your feet’ sort.) being a monopoly from the start.

          2. we are indeed part of a society and as such i use the word “we.” in that sense, over time, we demonstrate that we need governance of some type. we may disagree at the margins and sometimes at the heart of what that governance requires but governance of a sort we demand. in exchange for that governance in this country we have used regulation to make our lives longer, our children better educated, our cars safer, we’ve used the power of governance to create tranportation networks, information networks, power networks, and communication networks which once made us a model for other countries. with the acquisition of knowledge provided for by the government we know some ways to improve or maintain those networks in better ways than we have before. we have also learned the negative externalities of those networks we built and have some glimpses of how to improve them in ways that avoid at least some of those externalities. our government is frequently gridlocked by a party that does not believe in the value of maintaining or improving those networks, a party which pursues as the utmost value the mining of the wealth of the society it is supposed to govern for the benefit of the 1% or 0.1% most wealthy in the nation. a party that has inculcated in people who vote for them a belief that we are overtaxed and overregulated. this, during a period when we are taxed at rates that are almost unprecedentedly low over the past century. i am in the 2% and i should definitely be paying higher taxes and the people above me should be paying even more and the corporations that mine the wealth of the nation for the benefit of the highest reaches of our economic caste system even more. i may be in the 2% but my interests are much more aligned with 99% than they are with the 1%.

            as far as the specifics of this post–i have around 2 or 3 drinks a week. i can easily afford an extra $2.50 a month on my alcohol budget. almost anyone who drinks moderately could afford an extra 10-20 cents per drink. the lower the consumption the lower the externalities the lower the tax. only the most thin-skinned would regard this as the government stomping on anyone.

          3. “We” are you, and me, and that guy over there, and “we” is a great way to hide “let’s you and him” impositions on other people, to pretend that because some people agreed to something, other people aren’t really being forced into it screaming and kicking, or that they’re not really being wronged.

            In general “we” should only be used were unanimity is the case. The details it leaves out are important.

          4. “we” exists whenever more than one are aligned and even you and i are aligned on some things and can make a “we” in that limited sense. if you and i are not aligned on the necessity of some mode of governance to prevent a war of all against all resulting in lives that are nasty, brutish, and short despite all our other differences even our differences as to what form or type that mode of governance takes, then we are “we” enough for the purposes of my discussion above. i can only take your quibble with a pronoun as the argumentative side of your coin. i broke away from the “we” and shifted to the “i” when i began discussing the specific policy being discussed in order to make it clear i wasn’t trying to sweep that into my use of the societal “we.” since i plainly didn’t make that clear i apologize and hope i have, now, made my position clear. i regret the error.

          5. i also regret putting the word “not” between the words “are” and “aligned” in the first line of my response. i started to make that statement a negative and then decided midstream to make it an affirmative but then forgot to remove the offending word before i posted.

            my goodness i wish this site had previewing and editing.

          6. 😀

            see, reasonable people with different perspectives can eventually agree on some things.

    3. Actually, Matt, polls have consistently shown that a big majority supports raising taxes on alcoholic beverages. Here’s a news story about a poll from Minnesota on the Governor’s budget proposal. I’m choosing this one because it was reported just last month. This is a local issue, so there are few national polls, but regardless of the locality, they have similar results.


      The poll found some of the strongest support for a proposal that has been introduced in the House, but is not part of the governor’s plan — an increase in the liquor tax. More than 60 percent support it, with just 7 percent undecided.

      . . . .

      The state’s powerful liquor lobby has successfully fought alcohol tax hikes, but nearly every cross-section of Minnesota voters supports the idea over other types of tax increases.

      Support is highest among Minnesotans earning less than $50,000, with 67 percent in favor. Only 27 percent in that income bracket opposes a higher liquor tax. More than half of those earning above $50,000 also support raising the liquor tax, as did 79 percent of all women surveyed.


      This is typical. The people support the tax increase, but the liquor lobby opposes it. Guess who wins? If you think this is an outlier, I encourage to do your own web search.

      The effectiveness of raising the price of drinking in reducing problematic drinking isn’t in much doubt, either. In a 2010 meta-analysis, Tim Naimi et al. looked at 70 studies that investigated the effective of tax policy interventions. The studies used different methodologies and different metrics of problematic drinking. Of the 70 studies, almost all of them (67) found that there was “an inverse relationship between the tax or price of alcohol and indices of excessive drinking or alcohol-related health outcomes.” This evidence is about as strong as you can get that increasing alcohol taxes decreases problem drinking.

      The idea that “raising the drinking age has created a culture of binge drinking on our college campuses” comes as a surprise to me, who attended college before the age increase and witnessed such a culture already in existence.

  2. I think this: “so he invented a program where they could agree to come in at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. every day…” should be: “to come in at 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. every day…”

    Or maybe the morning visit is 7am?

  3. Mark

    You say so much right there it’s difficult to do anything but clap in appreciation. And this is, or should be, no liberal-right thing, but a simple observation of logic.

    David Cameron was all for a minimum price for alcohol (Scotland is already there but there is an EU challenge). Data from British Columbia suggests it will have a dramatic effect on alcohol related deaths. The British Medical Association asked for 60p a unit, but Cameron appeared minded to go for 50p (which would still *double* the price of some very cheap retail alcohols).

    Every off license and grocery store has a set of very cheap alcohols aimed at alcohol abusers– Tenants Extra Stock (8%) beer comes to mind, ditto some ciders.

    At least one major grocery store chain (Tescos) actually supported the measure. No one retailer can do this, and they cannot, legally, collude to do it. Only government action would be legal.

    But apparently there was a mutiny in the Cabinet with Teresa May, Michael Gove, Andrew Lansing (former health secretary, no less!)– all leadership hopefuls– successfully opposing it.

    Something the Coalition could have done which was authentically brave, authentically ‘small c’ conservative, and which would have made Britain a better place to live. Just ditched.

    I despair for this government, I really do.

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